Much confusion surrounds the terms “fine art print” and “reproduction.” The misunderstanding stems from the fact that the word “print” is often used interchangeably to mean both. Frequently, limited-edition reproductions are sold as “limited-edition prints.” So, how do you tell the difference?
Examining the true definitions helps clear this up.
A print is an original work of art. This definition includes anything that is a direct result of a creative process involving an artist and possibly the one doing the printing. Screen prints are examples of true prints.
A reproduction is a copy of an original artwork in which the painting, drawing or other two-dimensional piece is photographed and reproduced by a printing process.
Prints are hand-pulled by an artist from a printmaking surface such as a plate, stone, block or screen. They are usually numbered and signed by the artist beneath the image after the batch, or edition, is printed. Editions are usually 200 prints or less, even as few as 10. The numbering is done in this format: 1/200, 2/200, 3/200, etc.
After the edition is complete, the printmaking surface is often destroyed, ensuring a rarity that makes the prints more valuable. Even if they are not destroyed, printing wears surfaces down, and images pulled from them begin to degrade. Because of this and the paper type used, each print is unique.
After photographing the original, a reproduction is often printed in a batch, or run, of 1,000 or more. Often the artist is not involved in the process. By the nature of the printing technique, all the reproductions in a run are almost identical, with no variation in the printing or paper. Reproductions do not match the quality of an original print.
Sometimes artists sign and number a run of reproductions in the same way as original print editions. Marketers then sell them as "limited edition fine art prints." If you are not aware of the differences, you might believe you are buying an original artwork.
Look for specific characteristics to tell the difference between prints and reproductions:
Reproductions have visible dot patterns when examined under a magnifying glass. Prints show ink layers.
The size of an edition of prints is usually between 10 and 200. Edition sizes of reproductions can be several hundred to several thousand.
Artists usually sign each original print in pencil in the lower right corner below the image. If the image covers all the paper, it may be signed on the image or on the back. Reproductions may have a printed signature and a penciled one.